Chicago Lakes Trail – Mt. Evans Wilderness

There are certain hikes that I’ve done over the past couple of years that I’ll remember for a lifetime, and this turned into one of them. It may be because of a particularly impressive view the inspires awe, or potentially an encounter with wildlife that makes me appreciate the beauty around me. This hike would end up having more than one element of a truly unforgettable experience.

I decided on the Chicago Lakes Trail for Sunday’s hike, despite the fact that it was a heavily trafficked trail (something I tend to try to avoid), mostly because I really wanted to do a hike with a mountain lake payoff. Since I knew I needed to beat the crowds, I left the house around 5:30 and arrived at the trailhead at almost exactly 6:30, greeted by quite a few cars in the parking lot – certainly more than I expected arriving that early. There were a few people casting out their lures, but overall, Echo lake was serene and peaceful.

Looking over Echo Lake in the morning towards Mt Evans in Colorado

Still slightly groggy from the early morning and the drive up, I was confident in the trek ahead of me, and my adventure began. The trail was very nice and well defined, following the lake for the first stretch, with signs pointing me in the right direction. It was chilly – about 45 – and I was grateful for the trees surrounding me that offered a little bit of solace from the wind.

Sign marking the trail ahead
Beginning of the Chicago Lakes Trail, where it splits from the Echo Lake Trail
Sunrise over the Rocky Mountains from the trail

The beautiful mountain trail that I was so peacefully enjoying quickly turned into a terrifying ordeal for me, as someone who is absurdly scared of heights, when I was confronted with a narrow, rocky, uneven trail, with a steep drop off on one side.

Steep cliff at the beginning of the Chicago Lakes Trail

I had a lot of time on my hike to think about how to present this part of my hike. I thought about acting like I was perfectly confident and conquered my fears. I thought about acting like I was nervous, but continued to press forward despite my trepidation. The truth is, I turned around and headed back towards my car the first time I got to this part. I decided this wasn’t something I was prepared for, nor something I could do mentally.

As I headed back to the trailhead, I passed a few groups of people that looked like they should be more scared than they were, and it honestly gave me a little bit of confidence. I turned around to actually conquer my fears, only to reach the same exact point and decide a second time that this maybe wasn’t worth it.

It wasn’t until I was heading back a second time and passed a family with a small child that I decided maybe I was a little more scared than I should be. So I turned around once again and started out a third time. As they say, the third time was a charm. I think I was just a little bit more awake and my legs were just a little bit more warmed up, allowing me to navigate through. The sketchy terrain continued for maybe a mile, and there was nowhere to hide as the mountain forced you forward. I kept my head down, looking down at my feet and every step I took, and I eventually made it through. I decided to tell the full story to hopefully inspire someone else to push themselves past their boundaries and conquer their fears. It certainly was a good feeling getting through there though and descending further into the trees, where I felt much more comfortable. I had added probably a mile to my hike that I would come to regret fairly quickly, though.

Looking back at the tricky terrain just crossed, with mountains in the distance.

It’s not often that hikes start off going downhill, but it was nice coming down from the heights into a valley of sorts. There was a small stream to cross and the wind was almost nonexistent, allowing me to finally relax for the first time in a while.

Rocky terrain at the beginning of the Chicago Lakes Trail
Heavily wooded portion at the beginning of the trail

The hike went quickly going downhill and it was no time before I was turning the corner to start heading back up to the first lake. This part was a workout, with a seemingly never ending steady incline. The trail was wide and allowed faster people to pass easily, but this definitely got the heart pumping for me.

View of the steady incline going up to the first lake

In all honesty, reaching this lake was the goal for my hike when I left this house this morning, but there was at least a small part of me that thought maybe I could keep going. Upon reaching the lake, though, I have to say that I was at least a little bit underwhelmed. I think it was the fact that the lake was manmade via a dam, when I envisioned a natural mountain lake. It was still beautiful, don’t get me wrong, and I could see myself returning here for a picnic. You can walk all the way around the lake and find a place all to yourself to relax.

View over the first lake that you reach on the trail
Another view of the mountain lake and surrounding Cliffside's

This wasn’t what I was hoping for, though, and especially after pushing myself through the beginning, I wanted to make this hike count. I knew from my map that it was going to add a lot of mileage to my journey, and my stutter at the beginning had already added enough, but I decided to see what I could do.

Looking back over the first lake towards the dam

As you move past the first lake, you’re greeted with two cabins, and I honestly couldn’t be more jealous of the people that own them. Although a ton of foot traffic passes by their quiet cabins every day, they seemed friendly to the hikers and even had a labyrinth set up to break up the hike.

Labyrinth Instructions along the hike
Looking at the very unique labyrinth set up

I moved passed the two cabins and the incline started yet again. I wasn’t sure how long I could endure this, but as I’ve said before, sometimes I don’t know when to stop when I’m by myself – especially when I know there’s something more to see if I just keep going a little further.

Looking up the trail at the surrounding cliffs

The views were spectacular as I climbed higher and higher, alternating between wooded forest with stream crossings, and open meadows that offered wide panoramas of the surrounding mountains.

Steam crossing on the Chicago Lakes Trail
Sign depicting your entrance into the Mt. Evans wilderness area
Panoramic view of the trail and the surrounding mountains
View of the. meadow and surrounding mountains
Panoramic view of Mt. Evans and surrounding peaks

I couldn’t believe that I had pushed myself so far, but I finally reached the second lake after what seemed like an eternity of steady incline, and I was glad that I did. This was the payoff that I was looking for! There was the natural mountain lake that I set out to find, fed by the still melting snow, that gave way to the sheer cliffs of the peaks all around. I felt such a sense of awe at the scene around me that I found a large rock upon which I could sit to take it all in for a while. It was really cold at this point, probably in the low 40s with a strong wind and no protection around, but I sat on that rock for about 20 minutes taking in the scene. It was truly incredible.

View of the meadow in front of the second lake on the trail
Selfie in front of the lake and the mountains
Panoramic view of the second lake, Mt. Evans, and surrounding cliffs
Another shot of the taller mountains surrounding me

There was at least a little part of me again that wanted to keep going to the next lake, but my ankles and knees were hurting already and I hadn’t even started the trek back yet. I knew it was time to turn around and hope that I could actually make it. I hadn’t done a hike this long in a really long time and was again kicking myself for adding an extra mile.

I’m glad that I headed back when I did though, because I timed it perfectly for running into a couple of moose right off the trail! This is what I hope for every time I go out, and they were right there, so close to us. I felt so lucky to have this encounter.

Two moose grazing in a mountain meadow with cliffs behind
Lots of moose footage in the video below!!

It was hard to pull myself away, but after watching them for probably 10-15 minutes, they started to walk away and so did I, continuing on down the trail.

Giant boulder next to the hiking trail

It seemed so long ago already, but when I reached the part that was the descent at the beginning, suddenly I was faced with a steep final climb back to the trailhead. This time, though, there was a steady stream of traffic coming the other way, and the two way traffic on such a narrow trail made the steep cliffs even worse. My legs were wobbly now too, which also didn’t help.

Rocky incline back to the trailhead and parking lot

Somehow I eventually made it back to the trailhead, and honestly felt better than I would’ve expected after such a long hike. Maybe I should’ve kept going to the last lake! Next time..

This was another classic example of me thinking that the parking lot was full when I arrived, but was then greeted by more people than I could’ve ever imagined. Echo Lake is apparently pretty popular for picnics and fishing, and there were cars all up and down the road when I got back. I was thankful for being able to enjoy the calm of the lake when I was heading up, and was happy to get out of there quickly on my way out, to let someone else have my spot.

Shot of the parking completely full, including along the road

Anytime I see moose, the trail is going to rate at the top of my list, but I truly think this was one of the best trails I’ve been on in Colorado. I would highly recommend it, but just make sure you go to the second lake at least!

2 Replies to “Chicago Lakes Trail – Mt. Evans Wilderness”

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